'Rafta, Rafta …'


The title says it all. "Rafta, Rafta ..." translates to "slowly, slowly." And when describing this pokey production, truer words were never spoken.

Sarita Choudhury, best known as Denzel Washington's love interest in "Mississippi Masala," heads the ensemble cast in this comedy-drama about the aftermath of an Indian couple's wedding in an English suburb of Manchester. Although set in present day, the story reflects the mid-'60s origins of the tale on which it's based: Bill Naughton's "All in Good Time."

The cliche-fueled plot revolves around pair of twenty-something lovebirds (Manish Dayal, Reshma Shetty). Their sitcomlike dilemma involves moving into the bedroom of the groom's boyhood home. There, they must contend with his intrusive, ultracompetitive father (Ranjit Chowdhry), nagging mother (Sakina Jaffrey) and sex-crazed brother (Satya Bhabha). Worse, the bride's ever-bickering parents (Alok Tewari, Choudhury) live nearby, making privacy a precious commodity.

For various reasons, the bride remains a virgin six weeks after the nuptials. As the realization spreads throughout the household, relatives and friends of the twosome start a series of will-they-or-won't-they guessing games, nevermind speculating on the groom's masculinity. Pretty soon, everything from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" to "Meet the Parents" has been paid homage, all without summoning a trace of creativity.

Unfolding over 21/2 hours, writer Ayub Khan-Din ("East Is East") pads out by-the-numbers developments with much attention to Indian traditions and monologues that either beg for editing or should have been scrapped altogether.

In addition, the vehicle's digressions from humor to melodrama are clumsily handled by veteran director Scott Elliott. Worse, he dashes any good will built along the way with the most ludicrous, over-the-top final act in recent memory.

Without exception, the 10-member cast works overtime to humanize their stereotypical characters, with standout Choudhury proving as appealing as ever. However, the true star here is Derek McLane's impressive set, a two-story cutaway featuring an imaginatively decorated living room, kitchen, grand staircase and two upstairs bedrooms. Watching the principals wander between the dwelling's expanses — often with action divided among the multiple rooms — proves the show's most entertaining aspect. Jason Lyon's ultra-effective lighting is an added plus, as are Theresa Squire's colorful costumes.

Even so, the fact that "Rafta, Rafta …" won the 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for best new comedy is simply mind-boggling. One shudders at the thought of its competition. (partialdiff)
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